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One-Season Wonders: Mikael Forssell

One-Season Wonders is a MatchPint series looking at those players who delivered a single, standout season in the Premier League, how they got there, what happened and why it was never replicated again.

Once upon a time, in 1998, a lanky, Finnish boy with Bros hair was the unlikely subject of an international transfer scrap. I’m saying unlikely here because Finland’s great sporting exports have, traditionally, excelled at individual events.

Perhaps down to the long, dark winters and cold, hard landscape, some of the world’s great racing drivers, weightlifters and wife carriers have steeled their strong, silent concentration and pain tolerance on the frozen streets of Helsinki.

Skinny peroxide blonde lads with sporting aspirations rarely make it off the ice hockey rinks alive; those that do usually end up as bass players in Hallowe’en masked metal bands.

Mikael Forssell was different, though. Perhaps inspired by fellow countryman Jari Litmanen’s sorcery for Ajax, Finland’s next superstar was sought after by Europe’s elite. Resisting the lure of Ajax, Inter, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, the 17-year-old packed his bags for Chelsea, on a free from HJK. 

You couldn’t blame the lad for wanting to join the Blues at the time. Before Abramovich’s billions turned the club into an a win-at-all-costs behemoth in 2003, Chelsea were a forward-looking club with rogue ideas.

During the ‘90s, Chelsea were part of the leading pack who attracted some of the world’s best players to the Premier League. Their scouts probably watched Football Italia on Channel 4, which at the time was considered cheating by the purists. Gianluca Vialli was in the dugout, following in a line of maverick player-managers that had seen Glenn Hoddle and Ruud Gullit come before him.

In the summer of ‘98 Forssell joined in a mini Nordic invasion of West London, alongside Brian Laudrup, Bjarne Goldbaek and Tore Andre Flo. At a classic period in Chelsea’s evolution, the herring rollmop enthusiasts joined an already sleek team of seasoned internationals, the likes of which English fans had never before witnessed.

Ed de Goey, Marcel Desailly, Franck Leboeuf (aka Frank The Beef,) Gus Poyet, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Bob Matthews (aka Roberto di Matteo), Gianfranco Zola and Vialli were already there when Micky joined.

Representing a hangover from an early 90’s footballing style so agricultural it could mend a combine harvester after 20 pints of scrumpy, a lot of English chaff was mixed up in all this delicious foreign wheat. Dennis Wise captained a bunch of, in hindsight, hilariously token Brits including Jody Morris, Eddie Newton, Frank Sinclair and some young oik called John Terry.

Anyway, the point in this long-winded nostalgia is to show that there was already mad competition for places at Chelsea, even in pre-Roman days. Throw in the fact that he played  the same position as his boss, and it becomes even more impressive that the 17-year-old Forssell managed 13 appearances in his first season there, scoring 3 goals. Some say a mysterious figure appeared to Vialli in a dream saying “Use the Forsse, Luca.”

Wait, WAIT! Please stay with me, it’s worth the painful jokes for the crucial footie trivia. In 1999, Chris Sutton came in for a then club-record  £10 million, forcing Forssell to look elsewhere for first-team opportunities. He dropped down a division to star for Crystal Palace on loan, where he bagged 10 in 12 games and started a zippy bromance with Clinton Morrison which would later rekindle at Birmingham.

Young Mikael stayed out on loan for two seasons, biding his time with his parent club whilst garnering international attention by netting a brace as Finland held Germany 2-2 in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.

Forssell’s opportunity to become a first-choice Chelsea player came when he was still just a troll-fearing kid of 20 in 2001. Although he had Eidur Gudjohnsen, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Gianfranco Zola to contend with, four consecutive goals from the bench was a pretty good way of convincing his manager he deserved a place in the starting line-up. Claudio Ranieri could no longer ignore it: the Forsse was strong in this team. Last one, I promise.

A quick look back at his Chelsea days highlights a teen blessed with quite remarkable confidence in front of goal and the skill to back it up.

Tragically for our hero, no sooner had he thrust himself into Ranieri’s plans, than a horrific knee injury struck, putting him out of action for 9 months. After recovering his fitness he had another successful loan spell, this time in Germany with Borussia Monchengladbach.

In July 2003, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, instigating the most breathtaking display of transfer window gluttony the world had ever known. The £120 million expansion of Roman’s Empire saw Forssell pushed further back in the pecking order behind Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu, as well as Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen.

So it came to pass that the deadliest Finnish marksman since the WWII sniper known as the ‘White Death,’ went on loan to Birmingham City and delivered the season of his career.

Now aged 22, Forssell instantly endeared himself to his new set of Blues fans, scoring both goals on his debut in a 2-2 draw with Fulham. He had worked so hard on his all-round centre forward play that it is tough to find stand-out strengths and weaknesses.

Blessed with mesmeric close control, an astrophysicist’s understanding of space, and a tenacity that made him difficult to tackle, he could create his own chances as well as accepting his teammates’. In an era of great poachers, he fizzed into life as soon as the ball entered the penalty area. As a thank you for powering through the Star Wars puns I’ll spare you a Finnish one; let’s just say, boy, could he get the ball in the goal.

Planet Football’s Sean Cole remembers “a striker sent through on goal and you know he’s not going to miss, while everyone mentally prepares for the restart before he’s even picked his spot.”

Here's some classic Forsell from his 2003 peak - displaying enough grunt to shrug off the famously powder puff Nemanja Vidic, ruthlessy sending him for a hotdog with extra onions before calmly rolling into the far corner.

In just 32 Premier League run outs he managed 17 goals (the exact amount a certain Cristiano Ronaldo scored at the very same age), finishing as the top flight’s 4th top scorer in 2003/4; juicy numbers in any squad, made more impressive by a hardly classic Birmingham outfit.

Lest we forget captain was a 5-year old trapped in the body of a surf bum by the name of Robbie Savage, who irritated refs to the edge of their reason.

David Dunn was definitely decent. Signed from Blackburn for £5.5 million, he assisted many a composed Forssell strike. But for the most part, Steve Bruce’s underfunded side were a defensive unit relying on their talismanic Finn, who scored 40% of their league goals that year, to keep them in contention.

Forssell’s loan move transformed the Blues’ fortunes, and in 2004 they were pushing Europe, sitting in 5th place by March. In an away game at Villa Park the 23-year-old secured his reputation as a local hero, scoring Birmingham’s first goal in a comeback from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 against their arch rivals.

Steve Bruce’s side eventually took their feet off the gas, failing to win any of their last 8 games, to finish 10th. A pretty exceptional achievement considering that the previous season Birmingham had relied on nonchalant World Cup winning human shrug, Christophe Dugarry, to rescue their sorry asses from certain relegation in their first year up.

Sometimes, the One Season Wonder label is dished out mockingly, to players who just got lucky. Others, your Rickie Lamberts of this world, find themselves a fleeting balance of experience and fitness before old age almost instantly takes over. Your Adebayors have the talent but lack the dedication to fulfil it on the regs.

But in Forssell’s case, it is sheer bad luck that a player whose attitude matched his ability was ruled out of becoming a nailed-on 20 goals a season man by a pair of porcelain kneecaps. In September 2004 his patella fell to pieces for a second time, and the player never quite recovered.

Hankies at the ready for the following quote from Forssell, which pretty much sums the player’s love for the game up: “While in recovery, I dreamt about playing football every single night.”

Suffice to say his career never reached the more than a goal every other game heights he hit in his first season at Brum. Lacking a little pace now, he could no longer whack those stats for Birmingham, Hannover 96, or Leeds. His career hit its most farcical note at Bochum, where he once scored 10 in a pre-season friendly, and then couldn’t go to training because a cat freaked him out.

 

 

As Mo Salah and Kevin de Bruyne will tell you, breaking into the billionaire Chelsea side takes luck as well as talent. Though the odds were stacked against him, he always forced himself past more experienced and expensive players with his talent and application.

No doubt he could have won the league had he stayed fit. In his breakthrough year at Birmingham, the youngster scored more Premier League goals then any Chelsea player. How he didn’t even get nominated for PFA Young Player of the Year that season is a crime up there with not sharing your crisps at the boozer.

Forssell will always be a hero to the City fans who saw his brief but beautiful peak. Now aged 37, despite his injuries, he is second only to Litmanen as Finland’s top international goalscorer, with 29 from 87 caps. He finished his playing career at HIFK last year and has since completed a masters in Sports Management. A UEFA A License is next on the agenda with which he one day aims to become the manager of Chelsea.

George Utley
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Cover image - PA. Stats via WhoScored.

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